West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 2 | June 13 - 19, 2007

The end of the world as he knows it

Justin Taylor’s apocalyptic anthology

By Rachel Fershleiser

Global warming. Terrorists. Nuclear War. Unpleasant though it may be, we all like to speculate about how the world will end. Local writer Justin Taylor, 24, has taken this natural fascination a step further — he’s collected a variety of doomsday scenarios into a book of 34 short stories called “The Apocalypse Reader.”

Some of the stories were written specifically for this collection while others were selected from the works of writers from Edgar Allan Poe to Joyce Carol Oates. They vary in era, length, style, and tone, but each gets at essential human fears and desires. And though the anthology takes itself rather seriously (the introduction explains that one story “counterpoints the neo-Beckettian agoraphobia” of another) the morbid subject matter is deliciously entertaining. We recently spoke about the genesis of his end-times book.

Rachel Fershleiser: What first sparked the idea to do a book about the Apocalypse?

Justin Taylor: I’d been fascinated with the topic for years — I’ve studied it academically, wrote my undergrad thesis on it in fact — and one day it just sort clicked that I wanted to do an Apocalypse anthology. I tried to research what had already been done, and was shocked to learn the answer was basically nothing. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Why do you think apocalyptic stories capture the public imagination?

There always have been and always will be Apocalypse stories. They’re fantasies, really, if you take that word in its psychoanalytic rather than romantic connotation. Frank Kermode calls the topic “infallibly interesting” and I think he pretty much nails it. But each generation, each culture, has their particular reasons ... and their particular fantasies, a category that includes both real and imagined threats. I think the reasons for being interested in Apocalypse today are self-evident. If it isn’t the rumor of Super AIDS, it’s the reality of Super TB. If it isn’t melting ice caps, it’s the miserable death-bent criminals in the White House, or the equally scary Jihadists. It’s like pick your poison ... Except you won’t get to. Whether it’s Cheney, Atta, or the guy misreading the e. coli figures at the processing plant, the fact is that someone else is doing the picking for you.

How did you go about finding the right writers and stories to fit your vision? Which stories did you already have in mind when you had the idea?

I knew I wanted to get some stuff out of the canon, but I didn’t know about either the Poe or Hawthorne stories when I started. Sometimes I had particular stories in mind, like Rick Moody’s, which I took from his first collection, and in other cases I invited authors to submit whatever they wanted — such as Joyce Carol Oates, who sent a regular story and a very unconventional story. I took the weirder one.

Why do you think anthologies are so popular right now?

Conventional publishing logic is that they aren’t popular — people love to hate them — but I think they’re due for a new golden age, or are already in the midst of one. This is, after all, the era of the Playlist and the mix CD, and anthologies — when they’re done right — can serve an analogous function in literature.

Where and how do you like to work?

Well, before it closed down I worked exclusively at ALT.Coffee on Avenue A at 9th street. I just loved it there — the staff, the customers (regulars like Normal Bob Smith, the God of Atheism), and the whole attitude of the place. Now I work from home. ALT is supposed to re-open soon, as a family-friendly cafe called Hopscotch. I’m skeptical, but the owners are the same and they retained all the ALT staff who wanted to stay, so I’ll definitely give the new incarnation a chance. I just wish they’d hurry.

Where else do you look for a sense of literary community?

I go to lots of readings, I edit the Books section of a culture website [Econoculture.com], and most of my friends are writers: novelists, poets, journalists, editors, whatever. I suppose my particular little world is rooted in the New School, where I just finished my MFA in fiction. It was a stellar program — faculty and students — and I found myself part of a tight-knit group of writers. Now we’ve all graduated, so maybe the center won’t hold, but I doubt that. But to really address your question, I don’t go “looking” for it at all; this is just my life.

You talk in the intro about your commitment to short stories — why do you think they’re an important writing form?

All forms of writing, all forms of art, are important because each functions in a unique way, each has what Joyce in the “Proteus” episode [of “Ulysses”] called “ineluctable modality.” And it’s weirdly personal too. Some writers don’t write short stories at all, they think in novels. I’m primarily a writer of short stories. It’s my writerly orientation, if you will, though I certainly read a lot of novels and I like to think I might write one (or a few) at some point. In the end there are just stories, and you have to find the form that fits each one. “Great Expectations” couldn’t have been done as a short story. The inverse is that “Hills Like White Elephants” wouldn’t have made it as a novel.

How do you think the world will end?

Slowly, uncomfortably, and from something we hadn’t counted on. It’s always the one you least suspect, right? Though if I got to pick, I think I like the macabre cosmic justice in “Gigantic,” the story Steve Aylett contributed to my book. I’d hate to spoil that story though, so I guess if you want to know what happens you’ll have to buy it.

Justin Taylor and contributors Rick Moody, Brian Evenson, Gary Lutz, and Deb Olin Unferth will read from “The Apocalypse Reader” at The Strand (828 Broadway at 12th St.) on June 21 at 7 p.m.

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